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The Scandal of Grace

I have a book that contains quite a number of short pieces.  Some of them are articles in various periodicals---journals that might be religious in nature or some more popular magazines.  I occasionally read another piece.  Some of the authors I know and very much like---people like Annie Dillard.  Others I have never seen their names and know nothing about them.  One such name was James Van Tholen. 

His article appeared in Christianity Today, a well-known, more evangelical magazine that I try to read with some regularity.  James was a pastor in a Christian Reformed Church in Rochester, NY.  He had been assaulted with a nasty kind of cancer at age 33.  After some months of chemotherapy, he was able to return to his church.  The selection I read was his first sermon back with his parishioners.  It was very touching and I wanted to share some of it. 

I was touched by his openness and vulnerability.  Early in his sermon he communicated these words.  “So let me start with honesty.  The truth is that for seven months I have been scared.  Not of the cancer, not really.  Not even of death.  Dying is another matter---how long it will take and how it will go.  Dying scares me.”  I resonate with this because I am pretty much in the same boat.  I don’t find the idea of death troubling, but dying is another matter! 

Van Tholen continues his reflections in the sermon.  This next piece surprised me.  He says, “My real fear has centered somewhere else.  Strange as it may sound, I have been scared of meeting God.”  That is crazy, we might think, since the guy is a pastor and spiritual leader.  Again I appreciate his honesty.  Indeed, Van Tholen says basically the same thing.  He asks, “How could this be so?  How could I have believed in the God of grace and still have dreaded to meet him?”  That is a great question!  I, too, believe in a God of grace.  We read on to find out how Van Tholen dealt with his dilemma. 

After his experience of cancer, Van Tholen begins inching his way to an answer to his question, “how could this be so?”  He tells us, “As the wonderful preacher John Timmer has taught me over the years, the answer is that grace is a scandal.”  I absolutely love that line and that idea.  Grace is a scandal.  I don’t think I have ever heard it put this way and it fits. 

Van Tholen goes further.  “Grace is hard to believe.  Grace goes against the grain.  The gospel of grace says that there is nothing I can do to get right with God, but that God has made himself right with me…”  This fits how I have come to understand grace.  Linguistically, I know that grace means “gift.”  Grace is always a gift.  It is not earned and not a matter of me deserving it.  Grace is a way of affirming me when there may be littler or no basis for that affirmation.

When I was in graduate school, I heard for the first time the idea of “prevenient grace.”  I had never heard that language while I was growing up in my Quaker tradition.  But I knew enough Latin to know the word, prevenient, meant “that which comes before or ahead of time.”  So prevenient grace is that grace that comes to us before we need it or hope for it.  Prevenient grace comes ahead of time.  I like the image of the door.  Prevenient grace is there and opens doors as we are coming to the doors.  We don’t deserve it, but it is a gift nevertheless. 

But why does Van Tholen call it the scandal of grace?  Why use “scandal” language?  Grace is scandalous because it seems to cancel the judgment of justice.  Scandalous grace says God loves us even when we deserve to be punished.  Scandalous grace says it is ok, when everyone knows it was not ok!


There are many within the church and even outside religious institutions who secretly want people to “get theirs!”  Some of us want people to get what they deserve.  Often we don’t like it for grace to come along and cancel out the just deserts.  We want people to hurt instead of sing Hallelujah!  Particularly those of us who play by the rules and are obedient may want those who don’t play by the rules to “get theirs.”  We want accountability and God offers grace---scandalous grace. 

Too often, I am the elder son in the Prodigal Son story.  The prodigal comes home after blowing his share of the inheritance.  And dad throws a party!  That makes some of us mad.  That is scandalous!  Indeed, it is scandalous grace! 

Lord, help me come to understand more fully and embrace this radical, scandalous gift of Yours.  And maybe some day, may I be able to grace others in the same way.

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